Old copper from State House dome may be available for Maine artists

Scaffolding around the State House Dome, seen here Tuesday, will be a regular sight through October, as contractors work to replace the more than 100-year-old weather-damaged and oxidized copper patina with a shiny new one.
Mario Moretto | BDN
Scaffolding around the State House Dome, seen here Tuesday, will be a regular sight through October, as contractors work to replace the more than 100-year-old weather-damaged and oxidized copper patina with a shiny new one. Buy Photo
Posted July 22, 2014, at 2:48 p.m.
Last modified July 22, 2014, at 6:31 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine artists may have a chance to get their hands on a bona fide piece of state history if a proposal pending before a legislative leadership panel wins approval Thursday.

As work continues to replace 7,000 square feet of more than 100-year-old copper on the Maine State House dome, lawmakers on the Legislative Council are considering a plan to sell much of the metal to artists and craftsmen as a way to preserve and maintain the metal’s iconic and cultural value.

The Legislative Council — made up of the leading lawmakers from both parties — originally had planned to sell the oxidized and weather-damaged copper for scrap. The metal would have fetched somewhere around $12,000, depending on swings in the market.

But the council later asked the Maine Arts Commission to examine the possibility of putting the copper to more creative use. A Legislative Council subcommittee on Tuesday gave its tacit approval to that plan.

“Any time you can incorporate Maine artists into a historically significant project, and potentially employ Maine artists, that’s a good thing,” said Julie Richard, the Maine Arts Commission’s executive director.

The plan involves a multi-pronged approach that would see some metal crafted into art and jewelry for private sale, while keeping some in the public eye as sculptures and commemorative artifacts for public distribution.

The plan includes five elements:

— Some of the metal would be melted and reformed into a commemorative object such as a coin or other keepsake, to be distributed or sold to the public.

— Small copper sheets would be sold to jewelers and artisans. Current market value for oxidized green copper is about $400 for a 3-foot-by-4-foot sheet.

— A portion of the material would be given or sold well below market value to Maine sculptors or educational institutions for use in creating 3-D works that may be sold or used for educational purposes, such as Maine college studio art programs.

— Some of the largest pieces will be allocated for a new public art commission for the State Capitol Complex in Augusta.

— A portion of the copper would be recycled, with the proceeds from that sale used to fund other aspects of the Maine Arts Commission’s proposal.

That last piece of the plan, though, could turn out the be tricky. The idea is to take the least desirable stretches of copper — the most weathered, pockmarked and leaky pieces — and send them to be recycled.

But it can be hard to guess just what material could be appealing to an artist. Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, a member of the Legislative Council, said she never thought of hay as a particularly attractive medium, but that didn’t stop an artist from her district from using the stuff to create a mobile sculpture.

Richard concurred: “You can’t really predict what an artist might consider as part of their art,” she said. “What you or I might see as unusable, they might see as a beautiful piece of their sculpture.”

Workers have removed about one-third of the copper on the State House dome already. Crews are on schedule to complete the $1.3 million restoration project by this fall. The Legislative Council has directed contractors to carefully store the removed copper for safekeeping.

The full Legislative Council is scheduled to meet Thursday, and may reach a final decision on what to do with the metal during that meeting.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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